By Sarina D.’ 19
A few years ago, I was fortunate to travel to the beautiful city of Amsterdam. In addition to being famous for its narrow streets, picturesque canals, and trendy parks, Amsterdam boasts a vibrant progressive culture. LGBT flags are taped to every store window, support for sexual assault survivors is written across building walls- a facet and prostitution is legal. In the city’s Red Light district, prostitutes beckon potential clients from windows, and sex shops can be found at every corner. During my time in the city, I walked through the cobblestone streets, avoiding my then ten year old sister’s incessant questioning about what the women in the brothels were doing, and in shock that the sex workers were making transactions out in the open in broad daylight. This in itself fueled me with questions. What were the benefits of a system in which this practice was legal? What would it look like in the United Stats? Through this article, I hope to explore this further.
The business of prostitution, or engaging in sexual activity for profit, is often deemed “the world’s oldest profession”. And, just like Tomi Lahren, it doesn’t see color(6:20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2xv4fba65U&t=315s). Prostitutes are depicted in every European art movement, and are recorded in the earliest Asian and African civilizations. Today, in the United States alone, the (illegal) prostitution trade is estimated to generate about $14 billion dollars per year, with just over 1 million people of all genders serving as prostitutes.
Yet, the widespread trade is one of the most stigmatized businesses in today’s society. It is outlawed and shamed in both Eastern and Western Religions, and is a practice that many Americans view as belonging to only the lowest forms of humanity- those at the bottom of the bottom who are devoid of morals or etiquette.
But the purpose of this article is not to look at the ethics of prostitution, a practice that is not going to stop anytime soon. Rather, it is to explore the economic, political, and social ramifications of its legalization in the United States in a time in which our society is beginning to construct a broader definition of what a sexual relationship should look like, and in which the debate over what the government can tell us to do is as relevant as ever. In other words, would legalizing this practice foment positive change for the fabric of our society? And is it something that we should expect to see happen in the next decade?
The first question we have to think about when considering decriminalizing prostitution lies within the assumption that our common goal as a society and government is to stop the trade. If this is true, has making prostitution illegal achieved that aim?
The data says no. Prostitution rates in countries such as the Netherlands in which prostitution is legal, are equivalent or even less than those in the United States.But here is where we as a society often fall into a logical fallacy with the idea that just because it is going to happen no matter what means that we should make it legal. Now, we don’t employ this logic when talking about murder or rape? So what is the difference?
The answer lies in the fact that prostitution is, in theory, a victimless crime. Unlike rape or murder in which there is clearly one person in the transaction who is harmed, prostitution is intended to benefit both the seller and the buyer in the transaction. That assumption of course, falls through when we consider the numbers of sex workers who have been murdered or abused in the process. In reality, prostitution be a particularly lethal form of violence against a population that is majority women, and a violation of basic human rights. But it is these people, the only victims foreseeable of transaction, that are actually benefited by its legalization. Why?
Prostitutes often go into their business as a last resort, aware of the types of dangerous situations that they will be faced with on a daily basis. And unfortunately, many of these situations do occur. Year after year, hundreds are victims of murder, rape, abuse, or other felonies. A study of female prostitutes over the age of 14 found that 57% of the women in the business experienced some form of violence over an 18-month period. And the results were even worse for transgender sex workers, of which almost 80% reported being victims of rape or some form of sexual violence.
Decriminalizing prostitution would allow these sex workers to seek legal retribution for the crimes that have been committed against them. In the US, hundreds of thousands of crimes go unreported year after year. Victims choose not to go through the legal system because they are afraid of the consequences they will endure for attempting to attain justice when their own actions constitute illegal behavior. In fact, a problem with the criminalization of prostitution is that our legal system often views prostitutes not as human beings and victims, but as illegal sex workers who willingly put themselves in these situations. We as society have a hard time seeing a young affluent woman who claims to be a victim of rape in the same light as a sex worker who claims to be a victim of rape, just like we have a hard time understanding how a prostitute could be raped if engaging in sexual activity is their livelihood. But both of these situations are in fact true. A victim is a victim, and prostitutes CAN be raped, and are in fact, raped more often than women of any other profession. Legalizing prostitution would be like taking one more step to humanizing prostitutes and to giving them rights in our legal system and society. After all, it seems that criminalizing prostitution creates, rather than protects, victims in the transaction.
Another important effect of the fact that prostitutes are afraid to report crime is what this means hundreds and thousands of perpetrators, many of whom are repeat offenders, are never incarcerated, punished, or stopped. As a result, legalizing prostitution could be a solution to reducing crime rates. Let’s go back to Amsterdam, where prostitutes beckon clients in broad daylight. Since the Dutch government legalized prostitution in 2000, rape and sexual abuse declined as much as 40% in the first two years. Likewise, accounts of homicides and even sexually transmitted diseases saw a sharp fall.
When the government can regulate prostitution, as it does in Amsterdam, it gets to control how and where these transactions occur. Sex workers are much safer in broad daylight in a government regulated brothel then they are in a back alley where they are hiding from the police. Once again, if it is going to happen, and if it is a victimless crime, then we are actually doing more to prevent violence in the transaction and even stop the transaction if we are regulating it under our authority than if we are unaware of what is happening in the shadows of our society. But there also governmental benefits to legalizing prostitution.
As long as prostitution remains illegal, those within the industry pay no taxes, and the government is missing out on a lucrative source of revenue. In 2007 alone, Atlanta’s sex trade was worth $290 million dollars. In Nevada, legal brothels collectively make around $50 million per year, and pay significant amounts of tax to the rural counties where they are located. The state of Nevada, whose economy is suffering, does not share the wealth, however, because they don’t approve of the sex trade. To make matters worse, police spend time, money and resources, attempting to disrupt the sex trade. Imagine what Nevada police could do with that time!
It is clear that legalizing prostitution yields some economic, political, and health benefits. But to this day, it remains illegal in many countries in the world, including our own. And it doesn’t seem like this is going to change anytime soon. Why? The key rationale lies in the obvious symbolism of legalizing prostitution. Take the United States for example. Despite being secular, we were fundamentally built on Christian ideals(almost all of our Presidents swear on the bible and “In god we trust” is printed across our money after all). Our moral system is built with religious ideals and our morals as people are intrinsically intertwined with our religious beliefs. If our gods say no to prostitution, and if our social code has been programmed to look down upon prostitutes and view the trade as shameful and immoral, then the government legalizing the act would be perceived as our government and society condoning the act. Moreover, many people believe that legalizing prostitution would be legitimizing it as a career option for young people, thereby sending the wrong message about the the type of economy and society we are trying to build. And that is just too much for many Americans.
Take President Jimmy Carter, for example, who stated, “Normalizing the act of buying sex also debases men by assuming that they are entitled to access women’s bodies for sexual gratification. If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.” President Carter’s point about the objectification of prostitute’s bodies is not one to be taken lightly. However, this boils down to a question of morality versus practicality. If we as a society have come to the consensus that prostitution is morally wrong(which we won’t get into now), should our government automatically mirror societal values by making the act illegal? Maybe not. If this objective morality creates our laws rather than our critical analysis about how we can help the most people as possible, we might be hurting the people we intended to help, or even further exacerbating the societal ill that we wish to see vanish. This seems to be the result in this particular case.
Prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Perhaps instead of hoping that it will, in conjunction with legalization, we should start thinking about how we can remedy the violence that comes with transactions or start improving our education systems and economy to provide people with alternative career options. But legalization, on both a federal and state level, isn’t the only option. Other solutions espoused by advocate groups include imposing stricter punishments for those who buy sex rather than sell it, and creating more regulated brothels in big cities. All in all, all we can do is that in the coming years, the world’s oldest profession will see a decrease in the amount of violence and destruction in its name.
So what do you think? Let us know in the comments below!